In this most remarkable of remarkable elections, one of the most remarkable features has, as far as I have come across, invited absolutely no comment. This is the reinvention of Sinn Féin as a left-wing party. Yet, over the long-run, it may be a more significant achievement than breaking the stranglehold of the two big parties over our public life.
For long, Sinn Féin has been regarded by many on the left as somewhat suspect. It was seen as a slightly more radical version of Fianna Fáil and therefore very likely, if it were ever to achieve dominance, to emulate that party’s slide into firmly supporting the interests of capital while obscuring it behind a populist rhetoric.
Yet, election 2020 has changed all that. One sign of this was its manifesto which set out an agenda centred on developing the capacity of the state to address with urgency and vigour the enormous legacy of decrepit social provision especially in housing, health and childcare. This gave focus to what had been Sinn Féin’s growing identification that the heart of the malaise lay in the Irish state’s constant subservience to private capitalist interests in its social policy. To put it simply, social policy was far too beholden to the interests of profit-making.
Much research will need to be done into how and why Sinn Féin honed this as its message for election 2020. Some commentators have seen it as a response to its very poor showing in the 2019 local and European elections. Yet, its remarkable success in offering an agenda that struck such a cord across a wide swathe of voters attests to a level of political capacity, imagination and ambition that is rare in Irish political life.
And in doing this, the party unambiguously situated itself for the first time firmly on the left of the political spectrum. To me, the most amazing evidence of this were the solid transfers to other parties of the left, most especially to candidates of Solidarity PBP. In doing this, it has laid the foundations for a new level of collaboration among left-wing parties and independents that has the potential to change Irish political and social life in fundamental ways.
What Sinn Féin has done is not only remarkable in political terms, but stands out as a rare example of successfully contesting the dominance of the neo-liberal paradigm throughout Europe. It comes closest to the left-wing alliances that now govern both Portugal and Spain, offering the potential of emulating the success of the Portuguese case (the Socialist-Podemos coalition in Spain is too recent to evaluate its success).
Of course, we stand at the very beginning of this audacious project and the coming weeks, months and years will be ones of huge struggle to begin the task of social transformation so many citizens clearly crave. Yet, in a few days over last weekend, the transformation has already begun, and this is most clearly seen in the subtle change in public discourse.
At the level of our political system, this is evident in Mary Lou McDonald’s brilliant tactic of announcing, even before the counts were completed, that she was contacting the leaders of left-wing parties to discuss government formation and that she wants to be Ireland’s next Taoiseach. Even if such talks fail to achieve their goal, she has changed the imagination of what is possible in Irish political life, and set the objective of a left-wing government that has never been more than a forlorn aspiration in the century of an independent Irish state.
At a deeper level, a debate is already beginning about the subservience of Irish politics to market forces, illustrated by a fascinating discussion on Clare Byrne Live on RTE One as the counts were drawing to a close. The significance of opening spaces in our public discourse to focus on these fundamental shapers of our public life cannot be overstated as up to now they have been largely hidden and overlooked.
The coming days and weeks are going to be among the most fascinating in our political life for many decades. Sinn Féin’s aspiration to lead Ireland’s first genuinely left-wing government is fraught with difficulties but the very act of announcing it has already conjured into being a process full of immense potential.
For, progressive transformation goes much further than fixing the health service or a massive programme of public house building, important as these are. It requires transforming the public imagination and ambition, and this has truly begun. We all owe an immense debt to Sinn Féin.